30/01.7.1944 Special Duties Flight Lancaster III ND975 M2 P/O. Knowles
Date: June 30/01st July 1944 (Friday/Saturday)
Unit: No. Special Duties Flight (625 Squadron)
Type: Lancaster III
Serial No: ND975
Base: RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire
Location: La Ferte-St.-Cyr, Loir-et-Cher, France
Pilot: P/O. Wilfred Martin Knowles 172412 RAFVR Age ? Killed
Fl/Eng: Sgt. Alfred Williams Faircloth 1615345 RAFVR Age 22. Killed
Air/Bmr: Fl/Sgt. Leslie Harold Lloyd 1324223 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Nav: P/O. Robert Louis Frankfurth J/86986 RCAF Age 22. Killed
W/Op/Air/Gnr: Sgt. Basil Richardson 1310928 RAFVR Age 23. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Mathew John Wallen 1049087 RAFVR Age 22. Killed
Air/Gnr: Sgt. Richard Davison 178725 RAFVR Age 21. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
Dr. Theo Boiten confirms that this was the first abschuss of Major Max Eckhoff of Stab II./NJG2 at La Ferte-St. Cyr, altitude 1800 m, at 01:26 hrs. Combat report and specifics will be included in the Nachtjagd Combat Archives currently being published by Theo and Rod MacKenzie - an estimated eleven volumes over the next two to three years. It is noteworthy that Theo does not include squadron or aircraft codes for ND975, stating that she was from a Special Duties Flight.
The Vierzon raid was the costliest of the war for 625 Squadron, losing four aircraft and nearly four complete crews. The Battle Order for 625 Squadron included: PB126 (2 KIA, 5 Evaders) see Aircrew Remembered Archive Report, JB743 (7 KIA), and ND459 (7 KIA). P/O. Knowles and his crew are named in the Squadron’s casualty list for the Vierzon raid, but were not on the Battle Order. They departed Binbrook as members of a Special Duties Flight but were not included in the Battle Order for 460 Squadron based at Binbrook. Correspondence between the next of kin and the Station Commander at RAF Binbrook indicates that the crew of ND975 was participating as markers in the Special Duties Flight, but not as Pathfinders.
In Nachtjagd War Diaries Vol. Two, Theo gives a vivid account of the Vierzon raid targeting the marshalling yards. He notes that the scene was set for a serious clash in conditions of bright moonlight. However, the bomber stream had been over France for fifty-four minutes before the Zahme Säue (Tame Boar) crews were vectored at 00:44 to fly south to FF Venus near Orléans. As a result of this defect in the Nachtjagd’s control system, the heavies met no opposition until reaching the target. Most Tame Boar crews were alerted of the target when the first fires erupted on the ground.
The fighters established visual contact in bright moonlight and held the stream for the first one hundred and forty kilometres of the return leg. One Ju 88 attacked an unfortunate Lanc ten times in a span of forty-three minutes! One can only shudder at the potential losses if contact had been established at the French coast on the outbound leg - shades of Nuremberg three months earlier. As it was 625 Squadron lost four of twenty crews dispatched - a chilling 20% loss rate!
Sgt. Knowles and his crew were posted to 625 Squadron on March 15, 1944 from No. 1662 HCU. He was introduced to the fray of combat on March 24 as second ‘dickie’ to Fl/Lt. E.S. Ellis CGM, along with four of his own green crew. The target was Berlin.
On return they learned that three of their Squadron’s crews were not as fortunate - a prophetic omen for Knowles and his crew. At a breakneck pace they would complete a further eight ops in just over a month, by April 27, 1944. Their targets included Villeneuve St. George, Aulnoye, Rouen, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Karlsruhe, Essen and Friedrichshafen. All uneventful with the exception of Karlsruhe: Target not bombed, the mission being abandoned owing to severe icing conditions, which made height difficult to maintain.
625 Squadron ORBs did not include any operational flights by P/O. Knowles and his crew after the April 27, 1944 op to Friedrichshafen. They are next mentioned as 625 Squadron casualties in the ORB for the June 30/July 1/44 Vierzon raid. They are not included in the Battle Order for 625 Squadron along with the nineteen aircraft and crews that departed Kelstern on that raid. In addition, the Knowles crew is not included in the ORB Movements section indicating that they were posted out of the Squadron - suggesting that when they were shot down they were still members of 625.
It is very significant that a Frenchman, Alain Charpentier, has spent a good portion of his life researching and commemorating the Bomber Command aircrews that lost their lives during the Vierzon and Salbris raids. He has provided photographs and invaluable documentation from the survivors and next of kin. In particular, he contacted and befriended Fl/Lt. John Marks DFC after the war. While visiting ND975’s crash site together, he learned that Fl/Lt. Marks and P/O. Knowles were friends dating back to their time at OTU in 1943. On the evening of the fateful Vierzon raid, Fl/Lt. Marks as the Master of Ceremonies, called upon P/O. Knowles to re-mark the target. He witnessed the night fighter attack and explosive demise of his friend. It was obvious there were no survivors. He also stated that the code for P/O. Knowles aircraft was M2.
Further information was provided in a letter dated, July 16, 1952 by Marius Thouvais, a member of the French resistance, reporting to Wing Commander McDougall at the British Embassy in Paris. He noted that the one of “Les Mazeaux” (ND975), a Lancaster on fire, dived vertically from a great height and penetrated deep onto the soft clay where the petrol tanks and bombs exploded. Only small pieces of the boys were recovered and buried in a single, small coffin. He noted that most of the crew’s remains were left in a big crater half filled with water. In addition the four engines remain deep in the earth. When the crater dried the tip of a prop is visible. He was present when the Missing Research and Enquiry Unit (MREU) officers attempted to recover the bodies and wreckage - to no avail. Messieur Thouvais reported that the funeral for the crew was attended by the entire village despite the Germans forbidding it!
It is interesting that Sgt. J. Marks and crew arrived at 625 Squadron, RAF Kelstern on 14.2.44, a month before Sgt. Knowles. His crew included: Fl/Engineer - Sgt. N.R. Truman, A/Bomber - F/O. W.S. Telford (RCAF), Navigator - Fl/Sgt. A.E. Tompkinson, W/Op/Air - Sgt. G. Cooke, M/U/Gunner - Sgt. J.G. Ritch (RCAF) and R/Gunner - Sgt. F.N. Larard. After a ‘second dickie’ trip to Stuttgart on 20.2.44 with P/O. D.M. Blackmore, he wasted no time in chalking up the ops. Between 25.2.44 and 24.4.44 Sgt. Marks and his crew visited Occupied Europe on a dozen occasions - targets included Augsburg, Stuttgart, Frankfurt (2), Berlin, Essen, Nuremberg, Aachen, Rouen,Cologne, Dusseldorf and Karlsruhe. It is noteworthy that this was accomplished without an early return or aborted op. In the process he was promoted to Flight Sergeant and then Pilot Officer. Similar to P/O. Knowles there is no record in the ORB of his posting out of 625 Squadron, RAF Kelstern. There is no record of his crew flying on operations with 625 Squadron after the 24.4.44 Karlsruhe raid.
The formal report by Fl/Lt. D.M. Hunter of No.1 MREU, RAF France, dated July 29, 1946, gives insight into the difficulties encountered during their recovery attempt: Pumping to clear the crater of water took twenty hours! The ground strata consisted of soggy white clay that proved impossible to dig. Fragments of the aircraft covered the surrounding ground up to a radius of eighty or more yards. Debris included small particles of parachute silk, Sutton harness and burnt fragments of battledress and flying clothing. Imbedded in the crater wall were shattered portions of the larger components of the aircraft i.e. engines and parts of the main spar and longerons. The crater had already started to refill with water. Fl/Lt. Hunter concluded that there was no possible hope of extricating or finding any further parts of human remains or personal effects. The tattered diagram of ND975’s crash site (shown below) gives a vivid image of the impact imprint left by a Lanc in a vertical accelerating dive! It gives grim reality to the term: blown to smithereens.
Alain and Maureen Hicks, niece of air bomber, Fl/Sgt. Leslie Lloyd, have contributed photographs and correspondence that have provided insight into the personal tragedy and profound grief resulting from the loss of this crew - symbolic of those that preceded and those destined to follow. Letters from crew to families prior to their last op and between next of kin after the fact, paint a picture of lives terminated prematurely and families ripped apart. The photograph of Fl/Sgt. Lloyd’s mother at his gravesite in France is most poignant. Alain has been tireless in his energy and efforts in ensuring that these brave young men did not give up their lives in vain. In 1993 he organised an exhibition on the July 1st 1944 Vierzon raid that resulted in the loss of fourteen Lancasters. This was his first encounter with Fl/Lt. Marks who provided the eyewitness account of the loss of ND975 to the attack by Major Eckhoff. In addition, that he and P/O. Knowles were operating from SDF Binbrook. Alain noted that Fl/Lt. Marks was amongst the first crews selected for the SDF in April 44. He also noted that Marks flew eighteen ops with SDF and thirteen with 625 Squadron and Knowles ten with SDF and eight with 625.
In 1995 Alain organised a ceremony at Salbris for relatives and vets of the May 7/8, 1944 raid. It was attended by twenty-five relatives of the forty-nine airmen lost: “….it was a good tribute for all these Young lives lost…” In 2004 he travelled to Ontario, Canada, to meet the families of aircrew that perished in the Vierzon and other raids. He was also in contact with the niece and sister of Fl/Sgt. Leslie Lloyd, the bomb aimer and the sister of one of the air gunners. His research disclosed that Sgt. Alfred Faircloth, the flight engineer, was married and his wife was expecting - a son, Keith. Unfortunately he died just after the war before Alain could locate him. He continues his research and endeavours to have the remains of the airmen recovered and given a proper burial. Out of respect and reverence for ND975’s crew, the citizens of La Ferte-St.Cyr erected a memorial to them at the crash site, inaugurated on 20 July, 1953. This is similar to reverence displayed by the citizens of Little Grimsby with the witnessed loss of LL956 - further details here.
Above - memorial to the crew at crash site
Despite the relentless efforts of John Naylor, our Lancaster guru, we have not been able to solve the brief, mysterious life of Lanc ND975. She has been elusive in life and death. She was initially issued to 300 Squadron (Masovian) RAF Faldingworth where she arrived in late May 1944. Then the trail grows cold until the fateful Vierzon raid with P/O. Knowles and crew. As for squadron and aircraft codes, however a letter by John to the Department of Research and Information Services at the Royal Air Force Museum in February 2017, may yet give some insight, as this is still a work in progress. One fact is quite certain - she did not have a long operational career.
Above L-R: Leslie, Joseph, Ken, Beatrice Maud and Gladys 1926 London - Joseph, BeatriceMaud, Joseph Arthur, Leslie age 18, front Ken 1936 London - Leslie and Gladys 1936 London, Leslie Lloyd 1944 Lincolnshire.
Correspondence between the crew’s families and the authorities brings to light the frustration and profound grief that they experienced coming to grips with the death of their sons in the prime of life. A letter, dated Dec.3, 1946, from Ruth Frankfurth, the mother of the navigator, to the Secretary of National Defence for Air, Ottawa, indicated that information from the wife of the flight engineer, Alfred Faircloth, “that the plane has been found and the boys buried.” This was news to the family and confirmation was requested. In the same letter she observed that her son’s letters revealed that he was with No. 460 Squadron “in the middle of June 1944”. It is noteworthy that a MRES Casualty Enquiry dated Dec. 27, 1945 revealed that an aircraft identified by serial numbers taken from the wreckage as ND975, crashed at Les Mazeaux, near La Ferte-St. Cyr. and that parts of the charred remains were buried in one coffin at the latter place. No further news was received about any member of the crew, and it was presumed they had all lost their lives. This enquiry resulted in a priority request for the “extrication of the wreckage, in order to ascertain if any bodies or articles that may be identified are buried beneath it.” This request resulted in Fl/Lt. Hunter’s futile search noted above and provides some rational in the delay in informing the next of kin. It is ironic that Mrs. Frankfurth received a letter dated Dec. 2, 1946 from the R.C.A.F. Casualty Officer in Ottawa, providing the unpleasant details of her son’s, “P/O. Wilfred Martin Knowles”, death and burial. It is obvious that their letters crossed and in error the Casualty Officer used the pilot’s name. This letter in entirety is included below - Images 401 and 402 from the Library and Archives Canada/Ancestry site.
A letter dated 23 January 1945 to Mrs. Frankfurth from Air Commodore A.M. Wray, HQ No.12 Base, RAF Binbrook, Lincoln, provides invaluable information about the operational status of ND975’s crew:
With reference to your letter dated Dec. 29/44, your son, together with the rest of his crew, was borne on the strength of No. 625 Squadron. They were detached for Special Duties to a unit under my command and it was while operating in that unit that they went missing. I am sorry that I cannot say more than that regarding his duties.
None of the other members of the crew have returned to safety, and none are PoW.s. We have had no news of any of them since they went missing, and I am very much afraid there can be little hope at this stage.
Of course as long as there is no definite news one way or the other, there is no reason why one should assume the worst, but I know you would not wish me to encourage optimistic expectation where insufficient grounds existed.
Yours Sincerely, A.M. Wray"
Alain and Maureen you are to be commended for your tireless dedication and research to ensure that the ultimate sacrifice of these brave young men is not lost with the passage of time. Their gift of liberation was just as important as that of all other Services. Sadly, the only difference is that they, as members of Bomber Command, were overlooked for deserved, just recognition at wars end - Lest we forget!
Main headstone reads: "These Seven Airmen Fell And Were Buried Together".
P/O. Wilfred Martin Knowles. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Lisbon Vale, Below Rck, Christchurch, Barbados, British West Indies.
Left: A very distraught Mrs. Beatrice Maud Lloyd, Mother of Fl/Sgt Fl/Sgt. Leslie Harold Lloyd, taken in 1952 at La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery. Some several years later since his loss - but visiting his final resting place brought it all back!
Sgt. Alfred Williams Faircloth. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Of 11 Hemlock Street, Shepherds Bush, London W12, England.
Fl/Sgt. Leslie Harold Lloyd. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Son of Joseph Arthur and Beatrice Maud Lloyd of 3 Earl Road, East Sheen, Surrey, England.
P/O. Robert Louis Frankfurth. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Son of John W. and Ruth E. Frankfurth of Comber, Ontario, Canada. Grave inscription reads: "Greater Love Hath No Man Than This".
Sgt. Basil Richardson. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Son of Victor and Mary Ann Richardson of 65 Lindfield Street, Stainsby Road, Poplar, London, England. Grave inscription reads: "Our Loving Son Basil May Your Soul Rest In Peace. Mother".
Sgt. Mathew John Wallen. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Son of Robert and Lydia Maud Wallen of Myrtle Cottage, Cefn Hirgoed, Glamorgan, Wales. Grave inscription reads: "Rest In Peace".
Sgt. Richard Davison. La Ferte-St. Cyr Communal Cemetery, Plot 3. Coll. Grave 3. Son of Edward and Elizabeth Davison of Sunderland, Co. Durham and Grandson of Mrs. E.H. Davison of Crozier Street, Monkwearmouth, Sunderland, England. Grave inscription reads: "Only Child Of The Late Edward And Elizabeth Davison He Gave His All".
Reg Price DFC - 625 Squadron Vet
Photographs and Documents:Alain Charpentier/ Frankfurth Family Collection
Maureen Hicks/ Lloyd Family Collection
Library and Archives Canada/Ancestry
John Buckham- Photo Editing
Right: Amazing letter sent to the mother of P/O. Robert Louis Frankfurth by Olive Faircloth - this greatly assisted the research as it not only contained the full contact details of the crew members (subsequently placed within this page) but also the tragic circumstances that occurred following the loss of Sgt. Richard Davison - war affects more people than we perhaps appreciate or read about!
Alain Charpentier- e-mail contact
Maureen Hicks- e-mail contact
Library and Archives Canada/Ancestry
Nachtjagd War Diaries Volume Two: pp 95-96
Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website
625 Squadron ORB
Author’s Note re: 625 Squadron Loss - ND975
The research of this has loss proved to be the most challenging, rewarding and emotive of the Squadron’s seventy-four that failed to return. This despite the fact that ND975 was not a 625 aircraft and did not depart from Kelstern. However, this valiant, mixed nationality, youthful crew were most definitely Squadron members. Their countries of origin included England, Wales, Canada and the British West Indies (P/O. Knowles).
Both P/O. Knowles and Fl/Lt. Marks were introduced to the reality of operational flying as members of 625 Squadron at Kelstern. During this time they became close friends and volunteered to join the Special Duties Flight based at Binbrook. They remained members of 625 Squadron but were under the command of Air Commodore A.M. Wray.
During the Vierzon raid of June 30/July 01, 1944, Fl/Lt. Marks was the Master Bomber and P/O. Knowles was most likely his backup in the event he was shot down. A review of the ORB for this raid indicates that the 625 Squadron crews bombed the target in a time frame of 01:07 to 01:14 on July 1, 1944. This concurs with the sixteen abschüsse times documented in Nachtjagd War Diaries Vol Two, between 01:08 and 01:44 - almost all on the return leg. By 01:26 when ND975 was shot down, her three Squadron mates were lost - PB126 being the exception at 01:36 or 01:38. In brilliant moonlight Fl/Lt. Marks would have witnessed the deadly attack and final moments of his close friend and crew. It is apparent that he did not witness the interception in time to transmit a warning.
Family correspondence and photos provide evidence of the tragic impact of this loss. Rare was the letter of condolence from an RAF Air Commodore to the family of a Canadian navigator.
In view of the above and text of correspondents the following posthumous promotions/ decorations are suggested:
172412 P/O. W.M. Knowles - DFC.
1615345 Sgt. A.W. Faircloth - DFM.
1324223 Fl/Sgt. L.H. Lloyd - Posthumous Commission to P/O., DFC.
J/86986 P/O. Frankfurth - (Posthumous Commission), DFC.
1310928 Sgt. B. Richardson - Posthumous Commission to P/O., DFC.
1049087 Sgt. M.J. Wallen - DFM.
178725 Sgt. R. Davison - Posthumous Commission to P/O., DFC.
Despite enquiries to the CWGC I have been unable to receive an explanation of the request for seven recumbent slabs for the burial of this crew. Intuition suggests that identifiable crew remains were not located at the crash site. The other possibility is that this crew was a member of a Special Duties Flight. However, after further digging on the CWGC site and review of Alain Charpentier’s e-mails, I note that the crew of JB743 was honoured at St. Pierre-de-Jards Communal Cemetery with a Special Recumbent Memorial consisting of seven recumbent slabs. P/O. H. Hale and crew were members of 625 Squadron (not SDF), operating from RAF Kelstern. In addition Alain Charpentier notes that the crews of ND975 and JB743 are “still in the field…….nothing in the grave.” It is understandable that next of kin would like to recover the remains of the crews for a formal military service but taking into account the findings in the MREU report of Fl/Lt. Hunter, one has to consider the feasibility of such an endeavour. The chances of success are extremely remote - akin to finding a needle in a haystack, after seventy-four years. JEA.
Special Duties Flight (SDF) RAF Binbrook and Air Commodore Arthur Mostyn
‘Father’ Wray DSO, MC, DFC and Bar and AFC
The concept of a Special Duties Flight was introduced by Air Commodore Harris on April 4, 1944. “ A number of small targets in Belgium and France suitable for precision attacks by relatively small forces of bombers have been allotted to 1 Group for attacks to be delivered chiefly during moonlight periods.” The intention was to train and operate suitable crews in 1 Group to act as Target markers and Assembly Point markers for these operations. Each base was to select and train four crews for the duties of Target markers and Assembly Point markers.
In 1943 four close friends from the British West Indies (Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago) arrived at OTU. They included John Marks, Ormond Pollard, Esmond Farfan and Martin Knowles - a good Band of Brothers! They progressed in their training at HCU and hence were posted to 1 Group, two to 625 and two to 12 Squadron. Ormond Pollard also lost his life during the Vierzon raid (12 Squadron Lancaster III JB462 PH-S). Farfan and Marks were destined to survive the war. Alain Charpentier relates: “In 2005, I drove him (Farfan) to the grave of Ormond, to the crash site and the grave of Martin, must say that it was very emotional….He wrote his memoirs some time after, do not know if it was published….He had a very good memory of all he did during the war and after, telling me some good stories….The poignant thing is that just before the day of Vierzon, he played cards with Ormond, playing some money for the fun, Ormond was put on the board for Vierzon and Esmond not….They tell that they will finish after the Ops….a French target, a piece of cake….At the morning of 1 July 44, Esmond knew that Ormond and another crew of 12 Squadron had got the chop….the cards never played again….”
Above: From left 2 Radar Mechanics, then P/O. Ormond Harold Pollard 1724228 RAFVR, Sgt. Sydney Owen Reneau 1239172 RAFVR (note - the family also lost his brother, 19 year old, Ordinary Signalman Louis John Wilson Reneau P/SSX 30508 earlier in the war on the 27th July 1941 whilst serving in the RN on HMS Whitshed), Sgt. Albert Richard Albery 533661 RAF, P/O. Norman Harold Wettlaufer J/90025 RCAF. Not shown from P/O. Pollard crew lost - F/O. Frederick Henry Moxon J/25703 RCAF, P/O. Denis Sebestyen J/89841 RCAF, Sgt. John Roger Cowell 1823215 RAFVR.
SDF would suffer two losses during its existence: P/O. Knowles and Fl/Lt. Hull DFC during the Mailly-le-Camp raid. Fl/Lt. Hull was a very experienced pilot who had completed a tour of ops with 101 Squadron. His loss was very heavy for the CO of SDF, Sq/Ldr. Breakspear, who had a heated argument during a conversation with Harris regarding the severe losses that occurred at Mailly-le-Camp.
Alain notes that ops flown by P/O. Knowles with SDF included: Merville, Eu, St Martin de Vareville, Vires, Aulnoye, Reims, Saintes, Flers, Vaires and Vierzon.
Air Commodore A.M. ‘Father’ Wray (05036)
Arthur Mostyn Wray was born to missionary parents on August 21, 1896 in Brighton, Sussex. He spent much of his early life in Ireland living with a family while his parents worked in Africa. However, he left this family in1907 after a shooting accident in which Mr. Stoney, the family head, was severely injured. In 1914 he left Monkton Combe School mid-term to join the Army and was awarded a commission in “The Buffs” (3rd Regiment of Foot). He resigned his commission to complete a six month Sandhurst course and re-commissioned a year later. Looking for excitement and adventure, he transferred to the RFC in France. Flying Nieuport Scouts with No. 29 Squadron, he quickly proved to be an aggressive fighter pilot, shooting down an Albatross. However, on May 28, 1917, age 20, his luck ran out in a close quarter attack on a hostile two-seater biplane. Return fire resulted in severe injuries to his right knee with a fractured femur and kneecap transplanted into the bottom of his flying boot! After spinning out of control for several thousand feet he regained control and executed a perfect landing at Wagnonlieu,France without further damage to his aircraft. This action resulted in him being awarded the Military Cross. After recovering from wound sepsis, he chose the surgical option that would give him some flexibility but a permanent and increasing limp, yet retain his passion for flight. After convalescing he was assessed fit to resume flying and by April 1918 he was back in the pilot’s seat! His log book entry is humble and succinct: “First flip for ten months. O.K.” He saw no more action for the rest of the war.
Above left: A young Arthur Mostyn Wray Right: A/Cdr. Arthur Wray, ACM. Sir Arthur Harris, G/Cpt. Hughie Edwards.
Between the wars he continued his scintillating RAF career - being twice decorated! On 1 January 1919 he was awarded the Air Force Cross for his work as a pilot instructor at the School of Aerial Fighting in Ayr, Scotland. He was bestowed with the Distinguished Flying Cross on 30 May 1924, for “distinguished services” and courage in Waziristan, Pakistan, suppressing the revolt against British rule. While serving as a commander of 407 Fleet Fighter Flight at Lee-on-Solent, Hampshire, he acquired the nickname ‘Father’. This resulted from the age discrepancy of at least a decade between himself and his junior pilots. It was a halo of respect that he would wear for the rest of his RAF career! He was promoted to the rank of Squadron Leader in October 1933. Later that year he flew to St. Paul’s Walden, Hertfordshire, for the funeral of one of his pilots, Rodney Carlson, who had been in killed in a motor vehicle accident. After the service he met Carlson’s sister, Margaret, for the first time. The following year they were married in the same county church.
In November 1941, he was appointed station commander of RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire - age forty-five and walking with a stick! He found himself in charge of two Polish squadrons. At this time of the war survival rates for pilots were low and if morale dipped Sq/Ldr. Wray would fly with a young crew to their target, without getting permission - on at least two occasions he was severely reprimanded for his actions. On 24 July 1942 he was awarded the Virtuti Militari (5th class), Poland’s highest military honour!
In May 1943, he became an Air Commodore and commander of 12 Base - comprising the bomber stations at Binbrook, Waltham and Kelstern, with a complement of eighty Lancasters. In this role he oversaw the introduction and formation of the Special Duties Flight. Despite his age, rank and prohibition to the contrary he continued the fly on ops - to the toughest targets with rookie crews on their first mission. However, this would not last. At one point ‘Father’ Wray and a friend who commanded another squadron flew with their men on a daylight raid, even though Wray has been refused permission to fly just hours earlier! His friend was shot down and although Wray survived, he was ‘read the RIOT ACT’, being told: “ You know too much to risk being captured. No more operational flying.”
‘Father’ Wray retired from the RAF in 1946, age 50. With his wife and three children he ran a small farm in Pitney, Somerset, for a decade. Fittingly, he then finished his work life assisting ex-servicemen through local branches of the RAF Association and Royal British Legion.
His thirst for aviation still unquenched, he took up gliding. In 1961 he discovered the Devon and Somerset Gliding Club. He was sixty-five when he took his first flight in fifteen years and was instantly enchanted with silent flight. In 1964 he became one of the oldest to earn the international “Silver C” badge. However, the “Gold C” pinnacle would prove more elusive. At age 75, after repeated attempts, he earned this Certificate after completing a three hundred kilometre cross-country flight. Ironically it terminated near Binbrook, his wartime headquarters, where he was entertained by the station commander!
‘Father’ Wray died on April 6, 1982, age 85 - after running the gauntlet of two World Wars, leaving no stone unturned. One has to keep in mind that during the Second World War, as a senior officer, if shot down to become a PoW, he faced the reality of torture to reveal his wealth of military intelligence, especially pertaining to Operation Overlord. Another consideration was the extremely remote chance of successfully baling out of a stricken bomber due to his significant disability. Similar to Sir Douglas Bader, he was truly a legend in his time, but as a member of Bomber Command, never received the full recognition he deserved. The parallels of their lives are uncanny.
A 1986 edition of Reader’s Digest included the following Tribute by Sq/Ldr. Douglas Sutton DFC.
He recalled an op to Stuttgart on 15 March, 1944. Sutton was a young sergeant pilot with only seven hours of flying experience.
With Wray at the controls, the navigator misread the flight plan and got them lost, but he insisted on completing the mission through a barrage of intense flak, teaching this young crew various techniques to avoid being hit.
“By the time we landed back at Waltham that night, I had decided that Air Commodore Wray was the most remarkable man I had ever known.” said Sutton. “I was not alone, for so many of us who flew with Bomber Command in the Second World War, ‘Father’ Wray was unforgettable. Repeatedly risking his own life to shepherd novice crews half his age through their baptism of fire, he increased immeasurably our chances of returning from raids. Beyond doubt, I owe him my own survival.”
Citation for the award of the Military Cross: “2nd Lt. Arthur Mostyn Wray, E. Kent R. and RFC. "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” (London Gazette- 16 August 1917)
Citation for the award of the Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross: “Group Captain Arthur Mostyn Wray, M.C., D.F.C., A.F.C. "One night in March 1942 this officer participated in an attack on the Ruhr. To ensure success, Group Captain Wray deliberately descended to a low altitude, in the face of fierce opposing fire, to bomb his objective. His gallantry and exceptional leadership have set a most inspiring example”. (London Gazette- 7 April 1942)
Citation for the award of the Distinguished Service Order: “Acting Air Commodore Arthur Mostyn Wray, M.C., D.F.C., A.F.C., R.A.F. Air Commodore Wray has participated in numerous sorties, including an attack on Hamburg in July, 1943. He is an extremely skillful and gallant captain whose keenest and personal example have proved an inspiration to all in his command. The value of the training he has imparted to the young crews with whom he has flown on operations is inestimable. His work both in the air and on the ground has been of the highest order". (London Gazette- 20 August 1943)
Sources and Photographs:
Alain Charpentier - Emails
Air of Authority - A History of RAF Organisation Air Commodore A M Wray (05036), text and two photos (website)
Air Commodore Arthur “Father” Wray DSO, MC, DFC & Bar, AFC
Lord Ashcroft’s “Hero of the Month”, text and photo collage (website)
Battle Under the Moon - by Jack Currie - Photo of P/O. Ormond
Submission by Jack Albrecht and Nic Lewis. We would be most grateful to anyone who can confirm the squadron and aircraft codes for ND975 - indeed any further information.